Review: 2005 Toyota Highlander

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Today, nearly every successful car company's lineup features a crossover vehicle, and for good reason: SUVs that ride on lighter underpinnings boast superior gas-mileage figures, a softer ride, and easier ingress and egress. And they achieve these brochure-friendly high points while still offering the requisite all-wheel drive, in-command seating position, and roomy interior of their truck-descended counterparts--though they do lack the towing capacity and off-road worthiness of their beefier brethren. For automakers, these vehicles offer efficient product development, as they invariably share platform and drivetrain elements with other volume models. Sales of the prudent Highlander have increased steadily each year since its release; in 2004, the Highlander was the top-selling crossover sport/ute on the market.

By far the biggest Highlander news for 2005 is the introduction of the hybrid model, the first such SUV with seating for seven. The hybrid is available only as a seven-passenger model with a 3.3-liter V-6 engine mated to two, or in the case of all-wheel-drive models, three, high-speed electric motors. Regardless of how many wheels are driven, overall peak output is 268 horsepower, making the hybrid's acceleration numbers better than those of the regular V-6 Highlander, which puts out 220 horses. The EPA rates the front-wheel-drive Highlander hybrid at 33 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway, and it's classified as a SULEV (super ultra low emissions vehicle). Toyota still makes some truck-based SUVs, but as more people gravitate toward car-based and hybrid models, Toyota is leading the way toward having your SUV cake and eating it, too.

Toyota builds Highlanders in three trim levels: base, Limited, and hybrid. These SUVs can be driven by front- or all-wheel-drive systems and fitted with seating for five or seven passengers. Power originates from either a 2.4-liter/155-horse four-cylinder or a 3.3-liter/220-horse V-6 engine. All Highlanders come with power windows and door locks, cruise control, tilt steering, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system, and a rear-window wiper with defroster. Limited models add amenities such as power front seats, an eight-speaker stereo, heated outside mirrors, and an anti-theft system.

Toyota dresses the Highlander's basic two-box shape with sculpted muscle lines in the body, giving an otherwise boring exterior some character. The Highlander boasts an elevated seating position, without being an overly tall vehicle. Available appearance upgrades include 16-inch aluminum wheels, body-color mudguards, tinted windows, and a rear spoiler.

Ingress and egress are easy slide-in/slide-out maneuvers thanks to the Highlander's just-right height. Loading luggage into the rear is usually easy, though in tight quarters, the upward-swinging liftgate may not have room to open fully. Hoisting things up to the roof-mounted fastening rails also is also easy, due to the Highlander's relatively modest 68-inch height.

The Highlander's interior is generally quiet and comfortable. Visibility is above average thanks to the high perch and thin body pillars. Ergonomics are superb; instrumentation and controls are simple and easy to read. The overall dash design was daring when introduced and has aged well.

Second-row occupants have less legroom than in the Ford Freestyle or Mitsubishi Endeavor, but it's comparable to that of a mid-size sedan. Two-across seating is quite comfortable, and a third person is manageable. The Highlander also sports ample storage cubbies for front- and rear-seat passengers alike.

The third-row collapsible seat was first offered in 2004. Only children will be able to scramble back there and be comfortable, as only 30.2 inches of knees-in-the-face legroom is available. The back row does get a fan-speed adjustment controls for the rear heating system, along with cup holders. Grab handles and a convenient step in the rear-door opening immensely aid ingress to the third row.

An available rear-seat DVD system can help keep passengers in either back row entertained, and a navigation system is optional to assist front-seat passengers with the journey.

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